Cliff Stevens Interveiw Transcript

My name is Clifford Stevens, I live in Gimli, Manitoba. I am a third generation lake captain on Lake Winnipeg. I was born in Winnipeg on December 4, 1936.

You started off as a deckhand and kind of worked your way up. On the Keenora we used to have a lot of heavy lifting, and coal bags that weighed about 200 pounds. We’d be loading them and would have to take two cartloads of coal a trip type of thing. We used to say—down the hole! Our mothers used to tell us there’d be days like this but she didn’t say how to avoid them. So one summer I was a deckhand, and the next year I was the quartermaster, then you steer the boat with the first mate or the captain, and all your duties are altogether different. You’re in charge of the loading and the unloading, and you’re just on shift for six hours, so in 24 hours you work 6-hour shifts. But you have different responsibilities, and I kind of worked my way up pretty fast from a wheelsman to a first mate. And then I went to work for Sigurdson Fish for five years.

I really loved working for the fish company then. I got along so good with Sigurdson Fish and you always knew where you stood, you knew what your responsibilities were. They wanted the boat in twice a week, on a Monday and a Friday, so to make those two trips a week, we only had about 10 or 12 hours to make those two trips a week. Because fish is a very perishable item, it all went to New York because whitefish was used for smoking. It was a very perishable item and we always had to boat in there on a Monday and a Friday morning.

I worked on the fish freighters. We hauled the fish. The boats were about 85 or 90 feet long, they were approximately- the fish freighters were about 80 tonnes. We could haul about 1400 fish boxes. This went back and forth on the lake. We never stopped for weather or for nothing.

Oh, wow. So you went through big storms and things?

Yeah, it was unreal.

Why is Lake Winnipeg considered a dangerous lake?

It is a fairly shallow lake, and the storms come up very fast. The storms come very fast and they’re actually very furious storms. Especially during the equinoxes, the spring and fall equinoxes especially around the 20th of September. The equinoxes have a lot of effect on the weather on Lake Winnipeg. Some of the biggest storms are around that time. I remember being with my dad once that weekend and there was an equinox gale came up, 60 mile/hour winds and the boat was laboring very heavily, and my dad told me to go back to the kitchen, don’t be in the pilot house. It took two or three guys to handle the boat. So we came around an island and we put lines out into the bush, blind like in a snowstorm. Storms come very fast and very furious, but there were a lot of good days too. You sort of just take it as it comes.

Can you remember what the worst storm you ever sailed through was?

There were so many, one of the worst I remember we were coming out of Nelson River there and we were going from the mouth of the Nelson on a 40-mile course to Poplar Reefs and the wind was from the west and every half hour a squall would come from the west and it would become more violent each time. The water was just drifting off the waves. I remember staying on the wheel for 6 hours, I didn’t leave. We had the Chief of Norway House, he was one of the passengers. He sat in his room with his feet against the wall like this. And I also remember our cook, she was from Selkirk, Lizzie. She got so scared that trip she was gonna… so when we landed in Gimli it was all quiet and calm I told her this doesn’t happen very often, so please stay with us. She did stay with us.

Cliff’s father, Captain C.J. Stevens sailed Lake Winnipeg for 43 seasons. Here is a small excerpt from Cliff’s collection of stories, “I Talked to the Captain Today,” of some of his father’s accomplishments.

In his 43 years of sailing, Clifford Stevens Sr. required a thorough knowledge of Lake Winniepg, and could navigate along both shores very well. He discovered and pointed out five rocks not previously marked on the charts. He also pointed out the desirability of setting a buoy to mark the approach to the Red River from the Lake. In the last 16 years on the Lake as Captain of the Red River Dredge he did much dredging of the Red River and felt shocked at what he saw come down on it. He would never touch a fish from the water.

Here is an excerpt about himself from Cliff Stevens’ Collection of Stories.

I served as deckhand on the Goldfield, and two years as mate. As acting captain: an additional year as acting captain on the J.R. Spear. To qualify for the Master’s Papers we required 48 full months of sea time. So exacting were these regulations that when only 9 days short of the required time, he had to take two extra trips on the M.S. J.R. Spear to complete his training. We arrived in Selkirk at 5:30 in the morning, I remember going to Winnipeg and taking my exam from Captain Morrison from Toronto, including sight tests and colour tests, and back on the job with my Master’s Certificate in the afternoon. After that I continued to work on the J.R. Spear until 1964, and then I was Captain on the M.S. Goldfield from ’65 until ‘68. I found that the Captain’s work required a very exact judgement of weather. On the day that the Suzanne E. sank, we were at MacBeth Point, which was at the end of our line for taking fish. There was such a danger in the weather on the barometer that we attached a large towline to a large icebeam in the icehouse. 10 pm, it was so furious the snowstorm that broke that it shook the boat moored in the harbor. The next day we heard about the sinking of the Suzanne E on the radio. We were the first to find the wreck where it laid because there was a floating buoy marked to the Suzanne E.

How did you feel when you found the boat?

It was good we found it, they were searching for it so it felt very good. And we didn’t have the same radio frequency, so I told the mate to write a note in a bottle and seal it and throw it along side the search boat so he picked it up and read the note and found out where the boat was.

Cliff is a director at the Marine Museum (in Selkirk). I asked him what he loved about the museum, and here’s what he had to say.

There’s so much history on the Keenora, she served on Lake Winnipeg and did such a owndrerful job taking passengers and freight. They brought the icebreaker the Bradbury, which they used in the old days, especially during the flu epidemics. They used to break ice and take doctors and nurses out and treat the people on all the different reserves. They could break up to 17 inches of ice. My uncle Bill was the first mate on the Bradbury. They’d help the people out on all the reserves, and it was used as an icebreaker to resucue men that were stranded in the North. It was also in the later years used as a buoy tender, it took the buoys out to all the different places on the lake, also it took the lighthouse keeper and all his supplies out and then they also towed the dredge around to the different harbours that weren’t dredged out so that smaller boats could make it into these different harbours. And then we had the Chickama, which was used for… the Keenora would take passengers to the mouth of the Nelson river, and the channel was so tricky that they needed a flat-bottom boat to make it to Norway House because the Keenora wouldn’t make it through all those tricky turns. They had the Chickama built by the Purvis brothers. They took the people… when we came in the morning, they’d take the people there with a lunch and all the passengers with them and they’d spend the day at Norway house while we unloaded the Keenora. In the evening we’d be ready to go again, and we would sail across the lake to Grand Rapids. There was no roads even to Grand Rapids then so we’d travel across the lake. We’d come in there in the middle of the night and when we used to blow the whistle, the huskies would really sound off along the river. Everybody came down to the dock because we always had ice cream on the Keenora. You had to watch, everybody came down to the dock at 3 in the morning.
A lot of the older people at Grand Rapids would sell their beautiful moccasin slippers, everything was made by hand. All the beautiful beadwork. Then we’d stay there for a few hours and sail out of there and back to Berens River and then south again to pick up the mail, because we had the mail service too so once a week the mail service came through.
To have these wonderful boats at the Marine Museum is really something, so much history there. It’s done a lot for the community and is well-managed and well-run, everything is working very well there.

Cliff’s Biggest Legacy

My biggest legacy is helping other men: training other men, getting along good with people. Especially teaching, you know I learnt lots in Toronto and Thunder Bay, coming back and being able to teach, from sailors, one of my teachers was the Second Mate on the Queen Mary actually. His ticket was an extra master forward going, the biggest ticked in the world. He was one of my teachers; extra master Ford Lloyd. We were just in that level, compared to them. We had to learn lots, being in the water we had to know lots. Mostly experience though.

The Seaman’s Version of the 23rd Psalm

The Lord is my pilot, I shall not drift.
He lighteth me across the dark waters.
He steers me in the deep channels.
He keepeth my log.
He guided me by the star of holiness, for his namesake.
Though I sail mid the thunder and tempest of life, for thou art with me, thy love and thy care, they shelter me.
Thou preparest a harbor before me in the homeland of eternity.
Thou anointest the waves with oil.
My ship rideth calmly, surely sunlight and starlight should favour me on the voyage I take, and I will rest in the port of my god forever.

The lake was always unpredictable. You never knew from one day to the next what it’s going to be. A lot of good days, lot of bad days. Every trip had good and bad. It’s like a woman, it’s very moody.

Interviewed August, 2012

Posted in Interviews & Transcripts.